Northern Illinois University

NIU Office of Public Affairs

News Release

Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
(815) 753-3635

May 20, 2004

NIU anthropologist examines role
of cultural models in democratic movements

DeKalb, Ill. Northern Illinois University anthropologist Giovanni Bennardo is traveling to exotic Tonga next week in an effort to see what the peaceful island monarchy can teach us about democracy.

A specialist in linguistic and cognitive anthropology, Bennardo will examine how culturally informed ways of thinking might slow down democratic movements in Tonga. The National Science Foundation is providing a $50,000 grant for the research project.

The Kingdom of Tonga consists of about 170 tropical islands located in the southern Pacific. The nation has among the highest literacy rates in the Pacific, with its 98,000 inhabitants receiving free education. Despite budding democratic movements, Tonga is the only remaining Polynesian monarchy. The current monarch, King Taufa'ahau Tupou IV, is heir to a dynasty that goes back at least a millennium.

"I want to find out whether Tongans think of democracy as a solution to the problems connected with the country's non-industrialized status," Bennardo says. "I hypothesize that many Tongans see no need for democracy. Because of their cultural history, their preferred way of organizing knowledge mentally, and the way they conceptualize social relationships, they find the monarchy agreeable."

If the hypothesis proves correct, the research will inform policy makers and development specialists about difficulties they may encounter when encouraging democracy in countries with historically different ways of thinking about social and political hierarchy, including nations such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cambodia.

"Democracy is not something you bring to people as a cake to eat," Bennardo says. "They have to achieve it, or make it, themselves. That could be the long-term implication, if my hypothesis holds true."

Through previous research, Bennardo has demonstrated that Tongans conceptualize spatial relationships using a frame of reference that differs from Westerners. Unlike Westerners, Tongans typically don't use themselves as a reference point but instead seek out an object of importance in their environment.

For example, a Westerner might describe a building location as "in front of me," whereas a Tongan would describe it as being "toward the church," with the church being the most important reference point in the village. In experiments, Bennardo asked test subjects to draw pictures of their island. "They place the major town in the center of the island, when in reality it might be on or near the coast," Bennardo says.

Bennardo believes this way of thinking also applies to social relationships and networks, as well as to the larger domain of political life. He'll test this hypothesis by interviewing members of an entire village during his month-long visit. He'll return to Tonga with a graduate assistant next year to complete the project.

"In a democracy, the focus is the individual, and the Tongans are unaccustomed to that cognitive perspective," Bennardo says. "That could make it difficult to switch from a monarchy to a democracy, because it goes against the grain of the way they conceptualize the world. This doesn't mean that Tongans can't achieve democracy. It just might take longer."

Bennardo expects to complete the project in 18 months. NIU sociologist Charles Cappell is working with Bennardo on the social networks analyses. Computer imaging expert Kurt Schultz in the NIU School of Art also is collaborating on the project. At least six undergraduate students will be involved in the research as well.